I'm an environmental advocate. I believe we must remove fossil fuels from our common usage. I advocate personal responsibility in all matters. I'm a raging liberal and proud of it; although I'm often called a conservative. I'm openly gay and drive a three wheeled wonder called a Piaggio MP3 500 (and 250).
So what am I doing at a racing event, THE racing event in California, the Long Beach Grand Prix?
Simple: loving every minute of it.
The Long Beach Grand Prix first came to my town in 1974. I was 12 and lived on 5th Street, across from future Junior High, Franklin. Parking for the event, even the first one, was at a premium. We had a front yard that would hold about four cars and were dirt poor. We made $60 that day and knew the city was on to something.
I grew up poor, and gay, so the Grand Prix was not really on my list. I wanted to go. I could hear it. But I could never make it past those concrete barriers. It raged without me, and became the longest running "street" race in North America, with this the 35th year.
In 1982 I was writing for a local paper that asked me to attend as a photographer. It paid, so I figured why not, here's my chance; since that time I've been one of the quarter million or so that crowd down to Ocean Blvd. and Shoreline Drive to watch cars tear up the streets at high speeds.
I don't know the drivers per sé. I don't know the class of the cars. But I do know the economic stimulus it brings to the city. I know it is nothing but an ode to testosterone. A straight gay pride festival of sorts. Cheesy girls in tight T-shirts and hot pants passing out ear plugs or beer promotions, shirtless guys, many with tattoos walking around after them, families, dads with kids (usually male) in tow, moms making do, spectators that just want to see fast cars or people that live and breathe the sport.
And through it all, in the pit, each year, there I am. Talking to drivers and pit crew and spectators. Gasping in a cloud of toxic fumes as the drifters squeal by on Pine and Shoreline after bouncing off the Aquarium of Pacific corner, people shouting, engines raging.
I know, it goes against everything I stand for. And I love it.
Wednesday, April 16th I went to get credentialed. It's at the World Trade Center in Long Beach, the place where I saw the Towers fall on 9/11 (long story I was covering it for radio). There you show up, present ID and then get a wristband put on that you can't take off until your final day as well as a laminate badge. Mine is always #1 Pit Lane. The air downtown Long Beach is already electric, with "Welcome Race Fan" signs out.
People like Janice R. who works at a Pine Avenue restaurant, really welcomes them.
"The economy is so off," she told me. "I just hope that race fans come in and spend this year, I've talked to a lot of my friends up and down Pine, we all really need this."
The "this" are the dollars that come from dining, hotel and hotel taxes and all that goes with throwing a party for a quarter of a million people.
Yesterday, Friday April 18th the event kicked in to high gear. Celebrities like Keanu Reeves and Carlos Mencia practiced for the Celebrity Race on Saturday the 19th. The Team Drift Event had their qualifying as spectators got to see a preview of the all out event Saturday and Sunday.
And, as always, there I was, high in the blind on Pine and Shoreline, an eagle-eye view of the Queen Mary, the Pike, the places I spent my formidable years, watching people commune around a tottally pointless thing: combustion-engine driven machines spinning their wheels to burn rubber and drift across a street. And I love it. The G2 cars then qualify, Mustangs and the like all decked out roaring through the streets. Fabulous. And today, Helio Castroneves will be out qualifying for Team Penske, after being aquitted of tax charges and losing Dancing with the Stars. Scandal, perfect.
The fact is Long Beach has got this party down right, and it's gotten this party started as always. It's hot, it's loud, it's expensive at times, it's vulgar in some ways given the times, and yet so needed in others.
As I get ready to go down to the meat of the events today and tomorrow, I want to feel guilty. But I can't. People are working in my city. Revenues are being generated. Thousands are happy for a weekend. Yes, I'd like it if the tires were made of who-knows-what and the engines fueled on sustainable non pollutants. And they will soon enough, or die out.
Either way, I heard the first engine roar 35 years ago this week, and I was hooked.